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Mary McGrory

Urging Voters To Stay Home

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, October 24, 2002; Page A35

As voter turnout drives reach the frenzy stage, it is interesting that Sen. Tom Harkin's Iowa reelection campaign is knocking on doors and telling Iowans they can roll over guiltlessly on Election Day morning if they vote absentee.

The Voter Activation Project came out of the 2000 election: When the polls closed Al Gore had lost Iowa by 7,000 votes, and when the absentee ballots were counted, he had won by 4,000.

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Mark Sullivan, a 37-year-old Boston-born computer ace, decided it was time to combine age-old shoe-leather tactics with state-of-the-art technology. With Harkin's enthusiastic approval, he has been working on the notion ever since, and this year the Harkin campaign is sending out hundreds of workers -- some paid, some volunteers -- to every known Democratic household.

They are armed with Palm Pilots and applications for absentee ballots. They offer to help voters fill out the requests on the spot and deliver them to the office of the county auditor.

When they return to headquarters, the workers tap into the Internet and make their data available to all Democratic state office-seekers. It is especially welcomed by the four candidates engaged in fierce contests for Congress. They appreciate dope on voters' inclinations and intentions. Iowa is permissive about absentee voting, and no explanation is required.

The workers take the applications to the county auditor's office and subsequently make sure that the voters have received their ballots and mailed them in.

We have perhaps gone as far as we can go in efforts to lure citizens into voting. It is a privilege for which people in other countries are willing to die, but turnout has been scandalously low in the world's greatest democracy. Campaigns offer all sorts of transportation, from halftracks to limos. We have rolled out the red carpet on registration. The "motor voter" program made it possible to be registered in the course of any transaction with government. We introduced the idea of registering by postcard, and in some states you can register when you walk in to vote on Election Day.

Now we are telling them they don't have to be there. In Iowa, anyway, you can fill in your absentee ballot and send it anytime you feel like it. Washington state runs elections almost exclusively by mail and boasted a 75.45 percent voter turnout in 2000.

Some people deplore the diminution of the polling experience, its sociability and camaraderie. Mark Sullivan says he much prefers to go in person. "You never feel more like an American," he says. Nothing beats being on the scene for democracy's central rite. But better to vote at home than not vote at all.

Harkin is challenged by Republican House member Greg Ganske, a doctor much noted for his efforts on the patients' bill of rights. The threat is receding. Ganske is so intent on capturing the right wing that he still espouses the conservative concept of privatizing Social Security, which has been abandoned by everyone else in the party. He is also inept, recently blaming Harkin for the death of 11 illegal immigrants in a sealed boxcar. They were attracted, Ganske charged -- inaccurately -- by Harkin's promise of welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. Harkin's voting record shows he voted three times against the idea. Harkin's margin has increased to double digits.

A colleague who needs all the help she can get, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, has a modified voter activation program that is less high-tech and aggressive. She is in the country's tightest race, against a former GOP House member. Jim Talent is favored because he is, of all things, a politician. Remember when that was the worst thing a candidate could be? But Missourians are said to fear that the appointed incumbent is an amateur.

Canvassers in both Missouri and Iowa are bringing no surprises back to headquarters. The issues are what they were always going to be until the president began beating the drums of war: the economy, Social Security, prescription drugs. Voters are concerned about terrorism, but Saddam Hussein is not on their screens. As for North Korea, weekend walkers heard not a word about the new threat, which the president doesn't want to discuss either. Democrats disgraced themselves on the war issue, capitulating completely to Bush's demands and humbly asking him please just to let them know when he started dropping bombs. Their silence on the war is matched by Bush's on the economy.

It's time, obviously, for the voters to speak about what matters most to them. The mystery is whether they will vote on the president or on the men and women whose names are on their ballots -- however and wherever they choose to mark them.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company